Indigenization Guide: Understanding Indigenous Values to Support Indigenous Students

The following is an excerpt that combines four chapters from Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors by Ian Cull, Robert L. A. Hancock, Stephanie McKeown, Michelle Pidgeon, and Adrienne Vedan.

Land and Traditional Territory

Land is central to the identities and ways of life of Indigenous Peoples, and relationships to the land should be at the core of Indigenous services and programs.

The phrase “We will always be here and we are not going anywhere,” demonstrates Indigenous Peoples’ resiliency and perseverance in the face of ongoing colonization and their deep connection to the physical and metaphysical worlds that are in relationship to land, sea, and sky. This relationship is commonly expressed as, “We belong to the land, the land doesn’t belong to us,” foregrounding the idea that our role is as stewards for coming generations. There are over 30 distinct First Nations of British Columbia [PDF][1] whose territories transcend Western geo-political borders.

It now a common practice at public and private institution events, important meetings, and in formal documentation, to acknowledge an institution’s relationship to traditional lands and territories in which the campuses were built, as appropriate to the specific location. A helpful resource is the Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples and Traditional Territory[2] from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT, 2017). It includes the territory acknowledgements of post-secondary institutions across Canada and states:

While acknowledging territory is very welcome, it is only a small part of cultivating strong relationships with the First Peoples of Canada. Acknowledging territory and First Peoples should take place within the larger context of genuine and ongoing work to forge real understanding, and to challenge the legacies of colonialism. Territorial acknowledgements should not simply be a pro forma statement made before getting on with the “real business” of the meeting; they must be understood as a vital part of the business.


Elders are very important to Indigenous communities as they are central to keeping traditional wisdom and cultural knowledge alive and passing it forward. Their “credentials” are not determined by a university or other institution, but by their people and other knowledge holders, based on their lived experiences and their recognition as keepers of knowledge.

Elders are closely connected to land, language, and culture. Their insights and guidance shape the mission and programming of Indigenous units and departments, and institutions as a whole. Their involvement – and often, simply their presence – supports students, staff, and faculty, both in terms of the relationships they uphold and as role models of their cultural and emotional support and physical presence.

Ideally, Elders’ guidance touches all levels of the institution from the senior administration to the day-to-day experiences of students.


Languages contain and reflect unique and distinctive ways of understanding and relating to the world around us, and they are central to understanding expressions of Indigenous identity and community. In British Columbia, there are 34 distinct and diverse languages spoken across the province as well as the Métis languages Michif and Chinook jargon. To see the distribution of languages, please see the Museum of Anthropology BC First Nations Languages map [PDF][1](version 4, 2011).

Great harm was caused to Indigenous languages by the assimilative policies of residential schooling and other forms of colonialism. Decades of damaging policies resulted in a significant decline in speakers of many Indigenous languages, to the point that many languages in Canada currently have no living fluent speakers. Today many Indigenous communities are working to revitalize their languages. First Voices[2] through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council supports language revitalization through an online archive and teaching resource.

The Learning Spirit

Learning for Indigenous people is not institution specific and goes beyond formal education; rather, it is lifelong, place-based, relational, experiential, communal, and purposeful. Indigenization of post-secondary institutions and systemic change means we create different spaces for these gifts to be shared and learned.

Mi’kmaq scholar, Marie Battiste defines the learning spirit:

What guides our learning (beyond family, community, and Elders) is spirit, our own learning spirits who travel with us and guide us along our earth walks, offering us guidance, inspiration, and quiet unrealized potential to be who are. In Aboriginal thought, the Spirit enters this earth walk with a purpose for being here and with specific gifts for fulfilling that purpose … Our individual gifts for fulfilling our purpose are expressed in ourselves, in our growing talents, and in our emerging of shifting interests (p. 15).

As more and more Indigenous students enter post-secondary institutions, we need to examine processes of reclaiming culture and reframing identity and relationships through the services and supports offered across the institution to ensure transformation can occur and there is joy in learning.

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